Inside Office 2003

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Microsoft has decided that we users have become pretty darn productive. Though Office "suites" of the past were all about helping individuals work faster and smarter, Microsoft's new Office "system" focuses squarely on getting users to work together faster and smarter. Suites, including Office, have pushed group features since the mid-1990s. But in Office 2003, for the first time, changes to the package's bread-and-butter apps are so slight that you could miss them. The significant news for people flying solo is in just one program: The revamped Outlook 2003 has a smarter interface and handy added features.

True, the company has given Word 2003 a Reading Layout view that makes perusing your documents more like thumbing through the pages of a book. The new versions of Word and Excel give you a nifty way to do research from inside the document you're working on. And Tablet PC owners no longer have to download an update to make Office work on their machines. But if you live only in Word and Excel and aren't part of a workgroup, the notable changes end there.

The software "feature wars" are over. In these lean economic times, Microsoft will find persuading corporations to upgrade to Office 2003 difficult, so the company is surrounding the update with a careful marketing strategy, promoting it as a way to solve business problems and streamline group work. Microsoft sees Office 2003 as a tool that enhances your ability to perform tasks such as compiling sales forecasts and creating reports. The program's expanded XML capabilities star in this vision.

XML, or Extensible Markup Language, lets a company tie data from a back-end server database such as Microsoft SQL Server or Oracle to the Office documents its employees use day in and day out. This keeps everyone working with the most up-to-date information, such as current inventory figures or the latest marketing material. Also for groups, Microsoft has added new document-collaboration features and a technology to lock down confidential documents electronically.

Not everyone wants or needs all of the group capabilities, however, which brings up Office 2003's other twist: Microsoft has cooked up six different "Editions" (see the chart for pricing). Luckily, no file-compatibility issues lurk between the versions of the applications in the different Office bundles.

But there are two caveats. First, for an organization to use many of the new group features, everyone must have the Professional Enterprise or Professional version. Second, the people who create a group's XML forms and do the back-end data work need the Professional Enterprise or Professional package. Others in the company can read or save XML-enabled documents with the less-expensive Standard and Small Business bundles, but they can't create the schemas that are the magic behind the technology (see "Office 2003 and Your Workgroup").

For the most part, Microsoft is holding the line on Office 2003 pricing (again, see the chart). The MSRP and upgrade prices are the same as those of the corresponding XP products, for the Editions as well as for the stand-alone apps. Outlook 2003 is the exception: While the program's cost remains $109, no special reduced prices will be offered to upgraders.

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